When Texas' network of state jails was established by lawmakers in 1993, the goals were simple: Nonviolent drug offenders, thieves and first-time offenders would be housed in separate lockups with treatment and rehabilitation programs to cut their risk of returning to a life of crime.FWIW, "Considering a plan" is probably strong. It sounded to me like members of the Corrections Committee were voicing for perhaps the first time ideas in reaction to testimony from Harris County officials about state jails' effectiveness, or the lack thereof.
Now some legislative leaders are considering a plan that might do away with the Lone Star idea that once attracted national headlines.
"I think there very well may be interest in changing the current state jail system," House Corrections Committee Chairman Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin , said Tuesday. "The recidivism rates for state jail inmates are higher than for our regular prisons. We need to consider modifying the original model. They may have outlived their usefulness."
Ward went for reactions to the two men who arguably are most responsible for the existence of Texas state jail system: state Sen. John Whitmire and Williamson County DA John Bradley. Wrote Ward:
two architects of the state jail system, which holds more than 12,000 of Texas' 155,000 convicts — those sentenced for fourth-degree felonies, the most minor type — warn that doing away with the special breed of prisons would be a big mistake.Ward says Bradley served as a "liaison for prosecutors and law enforcement groups" when state jails were created, and as a purely practical matter I'm sure that's true. But as I understand it (that's a couple of sessions before my time), officially he worked as a legislative aide to Sen. Whitmire that session back in 1993. So perhaps it's no surprise that the creators of the state jail felony would not only defend it, but declare that it is the the main bulwark standing between the citizenry and the early release of violent criminals.
"Tell (McReynolds) it ain't gonna happen," said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who authored the state jail law. "We created this system to take all the low-level drug offenders and property criminals out of state prisons so we'd have enough room to keep the violent offenders behind bars longer. The system has worked well.
"It would be a disaster to do away with state jails."
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who served as a liaison for prosecutors and law enforcement groups when Texas' criminal laws were rewritten to create the state jail system, agreed.
"Instead of considering doing away with it, the state should be considering renewing its commitment to the state jail system."
To be fair, Chairman McReynolds didn't actually suggest eliminating state jails entirely, but beefing up probation for petty offenders and merging state jail functions with Intermediate Sanctions Facilities - short-term, treatment focused punishment for probation violators that aim to prepare the offender to succeed upon reentry. Arguably, McReynold ideas simply return the state jail concept to its roots.
Created as a way to divert nonviolent prisoners away from a life of crime, budget cuts eliminated treatment at state jails and "tough on crime" amendments eliminated what Ward says was originally "automatic" probation. "Republican George W. Bush lambasted Democratic incumbent Gov. Ann Richards, insisting she had been soft on crime in supporting the state jail law," writes Ward. "Lawmakers subsequently changed it to mostly drop the automatic probation." So if state jails were merged with ISFs, they would once again become essentially a probation sanction instead of the little mini-prisons they've become. In that sense, McReynolds' idea would return state jails to their conceptual beginnings, whatever name one gives to them.
Despite Whitmire and Bradley's understandable pride of ownership, not everybody agrees Texas' state jail experiment has performed so swimmingly. The Corrections Committee's discussion portrayed current state jails' "day for day" time served as fulfilling only a "punishment" function, not a rehabilitative one. In fact, the committee was told, state jails worsen recidivism, particularly among the mentally ill and other high risk groups. That's because, as McReynolds told Ward, state jail inmates leave lockup "with no supervision, no intensive treatment or programs, and their recidivism rate is as high as 34 percent, compared with about 28 percent for the inmates coming out of regular prisons."
Harris County DA Pat Lykos and Caprice Cosper, a former judge who now coordinates Harris County efforts to reduce jail crowding, were the most virulent critics of state jails at last week's hearing. Whitmire's comments were aimed at Chairman McReynolds, but it was the Harris County DA and the head of Harris County's Office of Criminal Justice Coordination who most loudly called for reform.
Chairman McReynolds wasn't jumping the gun or saying he would absolutely move on this idea, he was reacting to testimony. And as Ward later reports, far from presenting a "plan," McReynolds merely "asked members of his committee to poll local prosecutors and officials in their districts about perhaps changing the state jail concept to be more like special lockups called Intermediate Sanction Facilities, which house mostly parole violators."
Considering the most virulent critiques of the state jail system at last week's hearing came from the Houston senator's hometown DA and a former Harris County district judge who spent 16 years on the bench - not to mention the fact that 16 out of 22 Harris County felony court judges support reducing "less than a gram" penalties to a Class A misdemeanor - perhaps running the idea of reforming state jails by local officials would be a good idea for Chairman Whitmire. His belief that state jails as constituted have "worked well" isn't universally shared among Harris County officialdom.